Rev. Bruinsma is Eastern Home Missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, stationed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Previous article in this series: March 1, 2009, p. 255.
Visiting a mission field is beneficial both for the saints on the mission field and for those who visit the work. It gives the visitor a broader perspective of the church of Christ in this world. It also rekindles an appreciation for the precious truths God has graciously entrusted into our care and safekeeping. If a visit to a mission work accomplishes this, then volunteer labor on a mission field does so even more. Not everyone in the instituted church has the time or the means to be able to help in the work of missions. That is understandable. But there are those who do. These ought to be encouraged to lend a hand in matters relating to the mission work of our churches.
What we mean by helping out in matters relating to missions must not be confused with the actual mission labor itself. We have repeatedly emphasized that mission work is the official work of the church institute through its offices. Mission work is preaching the gospel. But there are times when certain practical labors become necessary in connection with mission work. These labors do not belong to the preaching the gospel. Neither do they require the work of the missionary. The Pittsburgh Protestant Reformed Fellowship where I labor is a good example of this. There were different groups who volunteered to help us work on our church building. Some cleaned; some built rooms and remodeled; some removed the onion dome from our steeple. A group of young people came to help us distribute welcome brochures in the neighborhood at the time of our open house for the church. Just recently a group of men came for a few days to repair retaining walls that had been washed away by a flash flood. These groups did necessary work that could not have been accomplished by the saints of the mission themselves.
There have always, however, been some concerns about the propriety of this kind of work on a mission field. Let’s consider a couple of those concerns.
Sending work-groups to a mission field is promoting a social gospel. Mission work ought only to involve preaching the good news of salvation in Christ alone. It is not the calling of the church institute to improve the social conditions of people. People on the mission field must learn that the church is not here to improve their social status, but only to teach them the gospel in the environment in which they already live. Sending work-groups to a mission field, therefore, serves only to tempt people to look to the church for earthly, material help more than the spiritual.
There is a warning in this, of course, that ought not go unheeded. Far too many today indeed view mission work as the need for Christianity to take the lead in the struggle for a better life in this world. Many mission trips today center in general, humanitarian efforts to improve the earthly conditions of families and communities in a downtrodden place of the world. Churches have become more concerned with improving life in this world than calling men to repentance and faith. This must never be the goal of our missions. Mark 8:36: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Our churches must not cave in to this cry for a social gospel. Neither may the saints on a mission field begin to think that the churches supporting their work owe them any kind of financial or material assistance.
It is, however, a mistake to claim that sending a work-group to a mission field is promoting a social gospel. First of all, the intent of work-groups organized and sent out in our churches has always been to help the saints who are a part of the mission itself. It is not a broad humanitarian effort aimed at bringing people to the church by helping them in their earthly needs. In the second place, these work-groups have served an important function in assisting the saints in their needs. A mission group is most often small and without a wide variety of skills. Those with skills in our churches are able to help out. Sometimes, too, a task requires a labor that is difficult to fulfill without a larger number of people. Work-groups have helped in this regard as well. This, as we will find, has been for the benefit of the mission work.
Sending work-groups to a mission field promotes the error that everyone who works on a mission field is fulfilling the task of a missionary, and actually doing the work of missions. The idea in modern missions is that anyone who goes to work on a mission field is, in fact, a missionary. They are given a quick course on mission work and this qualifies them to be a missionary on the field. By our churches sending work-groups to a mission field, we are following in the way of modern missions.
This objection, once again, serves well as a warning to us. I was reading a website designed to attract members of a certain Presbyterian denomination to volunteer as a part of a short-term mission team. I was struck by how much this idea of modern missions has crept into the mission work of churches of Reformed persuasion. Addressing these volunteer lay members, the site reads: “The scriptures point to many qualities you as a missionary should have. Here are some that you should be encouraged to develop and (we) will labor with each team member to aid them in the development of the following characteristics.” The warning needs to be sounded. Members of the church who volunteer of their time on a work team are not going to a mission field to do mission work. They are not quasi-missionaries. They are not called by the church to bring the gospel to people on a mission field. This ought not to be the function of a work-group. Neither, however, does it have to be. The volunteers who serve in the work-groups sent out to help in our mission labors do not come to the field with the attitude that they are doing the actual work of missions. They do not view themselves as missionaries. They simply come to help in some of the practical labors relating to the mission work of our churches. This does not mean that the witness they are called to provide every day of their lives is not carried with them to a mission field. God’s people are always called to give a reason for the hope that is in them. If they are called to do this while helping on a mission field, I would hope they would give it! These volunteers ought not refrain from giving witness to others just because they do not want people to think they are doing mission work. As long as we maintain a clear line between what constitutes mission work and what it is to help on a mission field, work-groups are not wrong. On the contrary they are of benefit to the work of missions.
Here are the benefits.
Sending work-groups is of benefit to the saints on the mission field. Those who become a part of a mission come from various backgrounds. Some come out of other churches and denominations. (Those who join a mission are not just from other Reformed or Presbyterian churches. There is a huge diversity of churches in the United States alone! We have believers here in our Pittsburgh Mission from Roman Catholicism, Methodism, Church of the Brethren, Pentecostal, and Baptist backgrounds.) Others join the church who come from an unchurched background. (We have these in our Mission too.) These saints desperately need a sense of belonging. They need to experience that they are a part of a whole. They need to begin to live the communion of saints. They need to know that this communion extends beyond the little group of believers they are a part of here. They need to know they are a part of a body of churches of common confession.
How can these new saints begin to understand this if the people of the churches that sponsor the work are never there? This is why, even when members of our churches simply visit a mission field, the saints are encouraged. Can you imagine, then, what a great encouragement it is when the churches respond to a need on the mission field by sending a group of saints to help fill that need? The saints on the mission field learn firsthand of the love and care of the churches for them. They know they are not alone, left to fend for themselves. They have others who are concerned about their welfare and respond to their needs. Wonderful! Work-groups help make denominational ties real to the members of the mission. The body of Christ takes care of its members.
A second benefit of sending work-groups is that it leaves a godly witness to those outside of the mission group. People of the community witness the labors of those who come to the mission field and freely give of their time to help their fellow saints. I have had neighbors comment on these labors: “These people are donating their time to drive all the way out here to do this for you? Your churches are serious about the work here!” Or, “Oh, this group belongs to a denomination of churches? It is not an independent (parachurch) organization?”
Has this produced growth in the membership in the Fellowship here? A better question would be: Are we leaving a witness in the community in which God has placed us? Yes! We have had visitors from the neighborhood who have come to worship services. We do not know in whose heart God may work by His grace through the preaching and call to repentance and faith. Work-groups have been of benefit in our overall witness to the community.
A final benefit of sending work-groups is for the members of our own churches. Mission work is real! The people we work with on the mission field are real people! The preaching of the gospel to others is a real work that has an effect on souls. Oftentimes when we live in our own little world we become trapped there. It’s safe there. We are in our comfort zone! We have a hard time thinking about the fact that God is using our churches to gather His church in places far beyond our little world. I would say that those who have come to work on a mission field return home with a different perspective not only on missions, but also on the saints with whom we labor. Take a moment sometime and ask a person who has spent a number of days with believers on a mission field what it has done for his own perspective on what he believes. Ask him about the zeal of a person that is characterized by a first love of the gospel and what that zeal does for him or her as an individual. Then we can begin to understand in a small way the benefit for us, too, that such work on a mission field can impart.